Parliament: Singapore has come up with its own approach to deal with offensive speech, says Shanmugam

When deciding whether to allow or ban something, the authorities take into account factors such as whether harmony will be affected, and also prioritise the prevention of unrest and violence, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In dealing with offensive racial and religious speech, Singapore has carved out its own approach as a secular state, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday (April 1).

When deciding whether to allow or ban something, the authorities take into account factors such as whether harmony will be affected, and also prioritise the prevention of unrest and violence, he said in Parliament.

They also assess the reactions of different communities, and whether such content could deepen fault lines or have security implications.

This approach, which has been relatively successful, is guided by common sense and is pragmatic in nature, he said in a ministerial statement on restricting hate speech for racial and religious harmony.

It also tends to function on a case-by-case basis - Singapore does not ban everything that is deemed insulting or offensive by anyone, neither does it allow everything that is insulting or offensive, he added.

For instance, Salman Rushdie's novel Satanic Verses was banned in 1989 - as a result of Singapore's mainstream Muslim community taking offence - but the Government has allowed other books and films even when religious communities were unhappy. For example, Bertrand Russell's book Why I Am Not A Christian, which is critical of the faith, is allowed here.

But Singapore has a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited cases of Singapore banning and admonishing foreign and local preachers who made racially and religiously offensive remarks.

In 2017, two foreign Christian preachers had their applications to speak in Singapore banned by the Ministry of Manpower, in consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs. One of them had referred to Buddhists as "Tohuw people" (Hebrew for lost, lifeless, confused and spiritually barren individuals) and the other had said Islam is "not a religion of peace".

Similarly, Singapore banned Zimbabwean Mufti Menk, who views it a sin for Muslims to wish non-Muslims a merry Christmas or happy Deepavali, and Indian-born preacher and televangelist Zakir Naik, who encouraged Muslims to vote for a Muslim during political elections when the other candidate is a non-Muslim.

Mr Shanmugam said letting in such foreign preachers, whose teachings are available online, allows them to build a following in Singapore.

"Eventually, this can become seriously divisive - like not shaking hands, not greeting each other and not voting for candidates of another race or religion."

Local preachers who have had brushes with the law include Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel, who in 2017 recited a supplication that called for God to grant victory over Jews and Christians during Friday congregational prayers at a mosque here. The work pass holder was charged, fined $4,000 and asked to leave Singapore.

"If we allow an imam to exhort victory against Christians, can we prevent Christian pastors from saying similar things about Muslims, or followers of other religions?

"What will be the consequence if this becomes a regular occurrence in religious sermons of the different faiths? These things have a momentum… What do you think the atmosphere will be like in our common meeting places?"

Mr Shanmugam gave the example of French absolutist secularity - a hands-off approach in which people can publish material that is offensive to any religion - as unsuitable for Singapore.

He noted that French magazine Charlie Hebdo has run cartoons on the Christian trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit having anal sex; the Pope holding a condom like a sacrament saying "this is my body"; and a van running over two people captioned "Islam, religion of peace… eternal".

Mr Shanmugam argued that the state should be able to stop such publications.

He added that the Singapore authorities are convinced the Western way will not work here. Instead, the secularity Singapore adopts strives in every way possible to achieve racial, religious harmony.

At the heart of it, he said, the state's fundamental assurance to the people of Singapore is that people are free to believe in any religion, including not to believe, and that members of faith groups will be protected from hate speech and unacceptable offensive speech.

"We have to decide what works for us, as a nation that is just 54 years old. Racial and religious tolerance is slowly being rejected in older societies than ours, which claim to be liberal.

"It is prudent for us not to take Singapore's values, unique and new in history, for granted," he said.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam also commended New Zealand's rejection of the shooter's message of hate after the Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15 that killed 50 people.

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